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Friday 17 August 2018

Mike Ross diary: Nobody expected it to turn out like this... except ourselves

THURSDAY: Down day today, and a lot of us took advantage of this and headed into Auckland to do some sightseeing.

The Auckland skyline is dominated by the Sky Tower, an imposing 328m tall, concrete and steel edifice. Of course, you can jump off it, and so a few of the more brain-dead members of the squad decided to do precisely this.

I decided to avoid this tempting option and instead go and visit my old Harlequins teammate, Tani Fuga. Tani was one of my best friends in Quins, and it was good to see him for a coffee and catch up.

He'd just opened a Nando's franchise in Ponsonby, one of the more upmarket suburbs of Auckland. This was particularly fortuitous, as it meant free lunch!

One of the great things about rugby is the friends you make. I know a lot of people all over the world from rugby, from South Africa to Australia to England to Fiji, and they are genuinely close friendships. Once you suffer and sweat and play together for a few years, it does form a tight bond and is one of the great things about the game. You can move to any rugby-playing country in the world, join a local club, and boom, instant social circle!

Friday

Captain's run today, and the boys were buzzing. We're full of nervous energy at this stage and it was good to get on the pitch and run some of it out.

The run out took place at Eden Park, in a confusing mix of heavy rain and bright sunshine. The weather in Auckland is positively bipolar,

hammering it down one minute, followed by the clouds opening up and leaving the sun pour through. Add in a hard, gusting wind and it was enough to give kickers and throwers fits.

The session didn’t take long, and we were soon back on the bus to the hotel. There wasn’t much going on after lunch, so myself and Tom Court headed for a coffee in the nearby shopping centre. After we got back there was a team meeting. Usual pattern, but this one was different. This time, Jerry Flannery presented the match jersey.

I've known Fla for a long time, since playing with him at UCC over 12 years ago. He's always been a player you knew was destined to play at the very highest level, with a relentless work ethic and will to succeed. Ally this to a quick wit and an outgoing personality, and you have a man who is respected and liked throughout Irish rugby.

Unfortunately, Fla had torn his calf again, an injury that had been plaguing him for the past year, and he had to go home. Sport is cruel.

Fla didn’t know if he'd be in this room again, and you could see it in his face. Nothing is said, nothing needs to be. Declan called out our names, and Fla handed us the jersey and shook our hand.

The emotion in his eyes was reflected around the room. It could happen to any of us, and well we know it.

After this, silence reigned for a bit, then Brian O'Driscoll spoke, and told us that nothing needed to be said after that, that we all knew what needed to be done. And we did.

Saturday

Game day comes, and it turned out to be a great day. I woke up at around 10.30, headed down for some breakfast – porridge and a ferociously strong coffee. Lunch was at one, and the pre-match meal at four pm. A lot of eating today, getting the carbs into you ready for the ordeal ahead.

I took a two-hour nap in between lunch and the pre-match meal, and I felt pretty good.

We got on the bus and travelled into Auckland with a police escort, something that still thrills the little kid in me. We arrived at the ground and got ready, with a boot and padding check. The referee chatted with the front rows.

The warm-up went quickly and before you knew it the anthems had been sung and the game kicked off.

The collisions were ferocious, especially at the breakdown, and the scrum went well, winning a number of kickable penalties.

The back row were on fire, engulfing the men in yellow and winning turnover after turnover. Paulie (O’Connell) and Donners (O'Callaghan) ran around like men possessed, hammering into the rucks and carrying hard.

The backs stifled the Aussie runners, and kept us on the front foot. And Cian Healy and Rory Best were everywhere, carrying and tackling and clearing.

It was one of the most satisfying victories I've been involved in. Nobody expected it to turn out like this, except perhaps ourselves.

Afterwards, we celebrated, but not too hard. We knew it all meant nothing if we didn’t beat Russia and Italy.

Still though, it was early morning by the time I got back to the hotel, and I grabbed what sleep I could.

Sunday

We were up bright and early at eight am, as our flight left at 10. I rolled out of bed feeling pretty rough, my body felt like it'd been in a car crash (which, in a way, it had) and I had a nice raw patch on the back of my neck from a multitude of scrums the night before.

We got on the bus and headed for the airport, for the 45-minute flight to Taupo.

We touched down at the tiny airport to another great welcome, and the strong smell of sulphur. Taupo is next to Lake Taupo, which formed in the caldera of a dormant supervolcano, and the region is still heavily volcanic. Hot springs abound, although thankfully the last time the volcano erupted was 26,000 years ago, an event which covered the entire North Island in a layer of ash up to 200m thick!

The scenery was stunning, the lake fringed with snow-capped mountains that once formed the rim of the giant volcano.

We checked into the hotel, and lugged our bags into the rooms. It turned out I was in for a treat. The room I was given turned out to be an apartment instead of a room, with three bedrooms leading into a kitchen/living room. It was a nice change from the double rooms we were used to, and the balcony had great views over the lake.

Sean Cronin and Tom Court were sharing with me and we crashed for a few hours.

After we woke up, we were at leisure for the evening with no meetings planned. A bunch of the lads went into Taupo, but a good few of us opted to stay in and have a pizza instead. I was in the latter group, the nap had caused me to stiffen up like a board, so I'd no interest in moving far.

Instead, we sat down on the couch in the team room and watched England play Georgia.

Monday

Monday was a down day, and there were a number of options to choose from: whitewater rafting, jetboat/bungy and golf.

I opted for the rafting. I thought the activity would help loosen me up a bit.

It turned out to be the popular decision, as about 15 of us opted to do it. We went out with Tongariro River Rafting, with about six of us to a boat.

After a quick safety talk, we headed out to the Tongariro river, and its grade-three rapids. I'd never been rafting before, and I was quickly grateful for the wetsuit and windbreaker they gave us. The water was freezing, about eight degrees thanks to its glacial origins. It was exhilarating though, the boat splashing through the big waves, the unlucky guys at the front getting drenched.

We stopped at a section with a deep pool and a cliff to dive from. Initially, I balked at the 10m drop, but then decided to just not think about it and go for it!

Halfway down my brain decided that this was a very bad idea, but it was too late. I hit the chilly water hard, going down deep. There was an initial moment of panic when I wasn't ascending as quickly as I would have liked, but the lifejacket came through and I popped to the surface.

Almost as soon as I'd surfaced, there was another huge splash as Sean O'Brien made his entrance, and I quickly vacated the area. Some craic.

Tuesday

We were back to regular training today, with a pitch session in the morning and a weights session in the evening. The stiffness was |finally starting to ease.

Lower limb was the order of the day for the weights, although I did some upper limb instead to give the back an extra 24 hours off.

It had gone into a bit of spasm near the end of the game on Saturday – might have had something to do with the 25-odd scrums that day. Thankfully it stayed quiet.

After weights I did some washing, taking advantage of the apartment's built-in washer dryer. We watched the Italy-Russia game, the game was pretty much over after half-time.

Italy were seriously impressive, and we know we'll have to pull a similar performance to Australia to beat them.

Can't look too far ahead for now though, and we've a tough game against Russia this weekend. They may be one of the lower tier nations, but they still hit as hard as anyone else. There's no room for complacency, and we need to back up our performance from the weekend and keep the momentum going.

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